Dwight Howard's defense is overrated, except for when it isn't


Dwight Howard.jpg

One of the most buzzed-about things during the recent Sloan Conference at MIT was a paper presented by John Huizinga on the value of a blocked shot. 
It was an interesting paper because it quantified things that fans have known for years. A block softly deflected to a teammate is better than a shot swatted out of bounds, blocking a layup is more valuable than blocking a jump shot, and goaltending is bad. 
What makes the paper extremely interesting is that according to Huizinga’s findings, Dwight Howard made the least valuable blocks in the league, while Tim Duncan made the most valuable ones. Since Howard is generally regarded as the best shot-blocker in the NBA by a wide margin, this finding has stirred up some controversy. Most people know that Howard goes for some blocks even he can’t get and tends to spike the ball out of bounds rather than tap it to a teammate, but the least valuable blocks? 

ESPN’s Peter Keating explained Huizinga’s conclusions like this:
“If your block produces an offensive rebound — often the result of smashing the ball out of bounds — that’s neither the best nor worst result. The other team keeps the ball, with an expected value of about 1 for its possession. If you goal-tend on a block, that’s the worst; your opponent scores automatically, and occasional fouls push the expected value of the possession up to about 2.07.
Over the entire stretch of data that Huizinga and Weil examined, Tim Duncan didn’t goal-tend once, while 24 percent of Dwight Howard’s blocks resulted in free points for the other team.”

Again, none of this is shocking stuff. Goaltending is bad. Tim Duncan is an extremely cerebral player on both ends of the floor. Howard relies more on instincts and athleticism, and sometimes tries to do too much on defense. 

So Dwight Howard’s blocks are overrated. But is Howard’s shot-blocking overrated? Even though Howard goaltends too much and doesn’t deflect the ball to his teammates, opponents sure are terrified of Howard swatting their shot when they play against him. The Magic are the second-best team in the league at preventing points in the paint, and were third in that category last season. Additionally, Orlando is the best team in the league at defending the rim for the second straight season. So while Howard’s blocks themselves may not be valuable, Howard’s value as a defensive presence is clearly off the charts. 
The real question is whether Howard’s minor issues with goaltending and swatting the ball out of bounds actually help him do what he does better than anyone else, which is prevent opposing teams from getting easy baskets inside. For each one of Dwight’s goaltends, how many shots got changed because an opposing player was afraid that Dwight would make a block no other player would dare to go for? For each basket scored on a second possession thanks to Dwight swatting a block out of bounds, how many players decided to pull up for a jumper instead of try to drive because they didn’t want to end up on the wrong side of a highlight? 
Before Huizinga’s paper gets dismissed because of arguments like the above, it should be noted that Duncan’s more subtle approach to shot-blocking was certainly effective as well. In 2008, the year Huizinga cites in his data, the Spurs gave up slightly fewer points in the paint than the Magic did, and were a top-five team in terms of defending the rim. 
Personally, I would say that Howard’s positives easily outweigh his negatives as a shot-blocker, and that he’s easily the best defensive player in basketball. However, I would stop short of saying that Howard would be best served completely ignoring Huizinga’s study. Just like great offensive players always have new skills to learn and areas of their game to refine, great defensive players can still have areas they need to improve in. In this case, Howard is giving up some points he doesn’t need to be giving up when he goes for blocks. Fixing that problem while still giving the impression he can still swat any shot will be tough, but it’s certainly something Howard is capable of.  

Spurs Danny Green has strained quadricep, out three weeks

SAN ANTONIO,TX - APRIL 30: Fans celebrate a three with Danny Green #14 of the San Antonio Spurs against the Oklahoma City Thunder during game one of the Western Conference Semifinals for the 2016 NBA Playoffs at AT&T Center on April 30, 2016 in San Antonio, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that , by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images)
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The Spurs are counting on Danny Green to regain his top-flight “3&D” form this season and give them another defender and weapon when they go up against that potential juggernaut out West. And the Clippers, too.

But that comeback is getting off to a slow start, the team announced Friday.

This likely means a little more run for Manu Ginobili and Kevin Martin to start the season, plus some funky lineups from Gregg Popovich.

Green played great defense last season but struggled from three (where 60 percent of his attempts are taken). Green shot 33.2 percent from deep on the season, which is well below his career average of 40.3 percent (and last year’s down numbers were buoyed by a red-hot January, he was much worse the rest of the season).

It’s something for Spurs fans to monitor, they need to get his legs right before his shot can return.

PBT Extra: Who wins MVP, other NBA end-of-season awards?

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The NBA’s award season seems more wide open than ever.

Ben Simmons was going to enter the season as the heavy favorite to win Rookie of the Year, but with him out injured the door is flung open to a lot of players. Coach of the Year is always a game of “which coach exceeds expectations.” Even MVP seems more open with Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant — the award winners the past three seasons — teamed up in the Bay Area.

In this latest PBT Extra I throw out my predictions for the awards, but let’s get on with the games next week and see who earns them.

Sixers Nerlens Noel to miss time following surgery on sore knee

CAMDEN, NJ - SEPTEMBER 26: Nerlens Noel #4 of the Philadelphia 76ers looks on during media day on September 26, 2016 in Camden, New Jersey. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

During the ProBasketballTalk podcast with Sixers coach Brett Brown, you could hear the frustration in his voice. He has all these talented young front line players — Joel Embiid, Nerlens Noel, Ben Simmons, Dario Saric, Jahlil Okafor — but he can’t begin to figure out how they all fit together if he can’t get them on the court at the same time.

That problem just got worse.

The Sixers announced that Nerlens Noel will miss time following surgery to deal with soreness in his left knee. Here is the word from the press release itself:

During the normal course of evaluation and treatment for his left adductor strain, which was identified on October 6, Noel reported localized soreness in his left knee. After consulting with multiple specialists, the source of the soreness was identified as inflamed plica. Noel has elected to address the injury via a minor surgical procedure in the coming days.

The team gives no timeline for Noel’s return. Soreness from the plica — a band of tissue around the knee that is not important following birth — happens in some players and can be fixed by an arthroscopic surgery that removes the area being irritated. While the surgery is minor, it usually takes around six weeks to bounce back from this.

That likely means a little more run for Jahlil Okafor (just coming back from an injury of his own) and Richaun Holmes. But it’s just another injury setback for a Sixers team plagued by them.

The Sixers also announced that Jerryd Bayless will not have surgery on his wrist, but will remain out and be evaluated in two weeks.

If you didn’t watch the final seconds of the WNBA Finals, you should


This was flat out incredible.

After a back-and-forth, even series between the Minnesota Lynx and the Los Angeles Sparks, it came down to the final seconds (although maybe it shouldn’t have, the WNBA admitted Friday the referees missed a call with 1:14 left, giving the Sparks’ Nneka Ogwumike a bucket on a shot after the shot clock expired).

The biggest stars took over at the end, as you can see in the video above: L.A.’s Candace Parker drives and scores with 19 seconds left putting the Sparks up 75-74; Minnesota responded with a Maya Moore jumper to take the lead back, then it came down to Ogwumike (the WNBA’s 2016 MVP) getting the ball after a block by Sylvia Fowles and following it up with a fadeaway bucket that gave Los Angeles the title.

Congrats to Candace Parker on the win, after how she’s been overlooked on the awards circuit in the WNBA this season, this is some sweet revenge.